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The Twenty-fifth Parliament « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

The Twenty-fifth Parliament
On April 8, 1963 the Liberal party won the election and formed a minority government. As the NDP deputy leader Fisher had more responsibility for party matters in the House. However this did not limit his journalism. In April Fisher started writing two columns a week for the Telegram usually on Tuesdays and Saturdays. It was in this parliament that the Hansard Index for the first time had an entry in Fisher’s index detailing “references to Mr. Fisher” and listed eight.[192] Four of the references were in regard to his journalism, one to a speech made in Toronto, and three related to other parliamentary statements made by Fisher. The first regarding journalism was on May 12, 1964 when Heber Smith (Conservative, Simcoe North) referred to Fisher’s television program. “A couple of Sundays ago I was watching television and I saw the minister being interviewed by the Liberal party’s favourite part time commentator, Mr. Fisher.”[193] Over the next year and a half, until he left parliament, Fisher’s profile increased leading to more criticism, some of it quite personal, in the House of Commons and in the media.

Two news events in this parliament illustrate how Fisher grew more vocal as a journalist while capturing headlines with actions both inside and outside the House of Commons. The first occurred in 1963 when Fisher charged that the Finance Minister, Walter Gordon, used Bay Street help to write his first budget. The second was a televised debate in Montreal in 1964 between Fisher and then provincial Liberal Minister of Natural Resources, Rene Levesque.

Gordon tabled his budget on June 13 and the next day Fisher was on his feet in Question Period.

    Mr. Speaker, I should like to ask the Minister of Finance a question regarding the preparation and provenance of last night’s budget speech. Can the minister assure us that he and his government officials alone prepared the budget speech without the assistance of outside consultants or ghost writers from Toronto?[194]

In the days leading up to the budget Fisher spotted an acquaintance from Toronto in the parliamentary dining room with a finance department official. “These guys were having lunch with him, chatting intimately. The budget was due, I think the next day. They just had to have something to do with the budget.”[195] Fisher made a few calls to officials in the department of finance and confirmed that Gordon had used three financial experts from Toronto to work on the budget.

    I knew I had something that could be a real squall, cause a squall. You see, I’d been in the House long enough to know what gets press attention and what doesn’t. I had become very good at what you might call that kind of managing. But I also knew that in order, given the timing of everything, in order to get the thing picked up and moving, it had to broaden out that very day.[196]

Fisher had it right. That afternoon the Star and the Telegram played the story about the consultants on page one and the next day the Globe and Mail did too. Fisher himself stayed away from the controversy in his Saturday column. Instead he wrote Gordon “revealed what I have guessed before: he is a Liberal politician first, second and always.”[197] He assessed the budget for its “political significance” and wrote, “Mr. Gordon will be an orthodox bulwark against any of his colleagues who want to go free-spending.”[198] The Tuesday column reviewed the week in parliament and Liberal cabinet Minister, Mitchell Sharp’s performance and included a reference to the Gordon controversy.

    Mr. Sharp gave evidence that he will be the most competent, invulnerable cabinet minister of the lot. He is informed, deft, persuasive and cautious. Off this one speech, we can assume that Mr. Sharp may become the No. 2 man to Pearson, a rating from which Walter Gordon dropped badly through his awkwardness during the ghost-writer episode.[199]

Fisher didn’t refer to his role in that column but he took care of that the following Saturday. Under the banner headline “THIS IS WHY I GUNNED FOR GORDON” Fisher wrote.

    I put the question on the post-budget morning which started the furor. Credit has been given me for picking up the news of strangers in the sanctum from a Financial Post story last month. I had read this piece and forgotten it.[200]

Having dispensed with the Post piece Fisher revealed to readers how he gathered the story.[201]

    For more than a week I had noticed that Mr. Gordon’s executive assistant was squiring two or three strangers around the Hill, like an aide-de-camp around royalty…On Budget evening the three strangers were still around…I could hardly wait to ask Mr. Gordon the question next morning. I did. His reply was awkward, hesitant, indirect, even evasive – and away rolled the drums.[202]

Was the parliamentarian participant mending his observer fences when, towards the end of the column, he wrote, “I would defend Mr. Gordon’s personal integrity to the death. But his judgment was bad, bad, bad.”[203] Fisher “managed” the Gordon story like a playright-actor. He found the story line, delivered the lines with perfect timing and flare and, as the scene drew to its end, provided the soliloquy.

The next year Fisher again traded on his status as a politician with profile but this time outside the House of Commons. On a Friday evening, in early March, Fisher arrived at a hall in the Montreal suburb of Notre Dame-de-Grace for a debate with the Quebec Liberal minister of natural resources, Rene Levesque. Technicians had set up cameras and microphones for coverage of the debate as part of a CBC program that weekend. The Globe reporter, William French, described the scene in a column a week later.

    Long before the meeting was due to start, all 900 seats in the meeting room – appropriately a gymnasium – were filled and by the scheduled starting time, lobbies and corridors were jammed with people who had no hope getting in but stayed anyway.[204]

French reminded his readers of the FLQ bombings a year earlier and noted that Montreal is “jittery these days; even though there has been no violence since last summer.”[205] That Sunday night the CBC program “Inquiry” aired a portion of the debate. Laurier LaPierre hosted “Inquiry” and he also chaired the debate. LaPierre told the TV audience:

    Both men avoided the extreme kinds of statement which have so often blurred the dialogue between Canada’s two founding races; both spoke from strong conviction – but in an effort to search for reason – and reasons, in the fundamental problems facing confederation.[206]

Levesque spoke of his frustrations with the on going debate about the future of Canada and said; “this is my last effort of communication in English of our basic Canadian problem.”[207] He added, “We are in danger of dislocation.”[208] Fisher in his opening remarks drew on both his status as politician and journalist to justify his right to represent the view of English-Canada.

    I come from a constituency in the center of the country that I think is a microcosm of the whole in English speaking Canada. It is some 90,000 people. I have a newspaper column that goes out to about a circulation of 1,000,000 and from that I get quite a play-back in terms of letters.[209]

He ended his opening remarks with a line that appeared in papers the next day.

    There is a majority there (English Canada) who are waiting for the kind of inspiration from French Canadian leaders and from the Province of Quebec that will say yes we can go on, – the whole is greater than the part.[210]

Levesque jumped on this. “I would say that the part is more vital than the whole to us. Then the whole can live if that is acceptable.”[211] At the end of the discussion, in answer to a question, Levesque confronted separatism. “I could become a separatist, but I am not one. I could become one. I said that, – it’s no big news.”[212]

The next day the Toronto Telegram editors thought Levesque had made news and headlined the front-page story, “I Could Become Separatist.”

    In a debate with burly Douglas Fisher the fiery French-Canadian declared: “If English Canada doesn’t know what French Canada wants, then there isn’t much point of discussing further. This is my last communication in English on the topic of what English Canada should think of French Canada’s aspirations.”[213]

The Star used a report from Canadian Press headlined, “Quebec’s Levesque ‘fed up’ with bicultural efforts.”[214] The Globe played the story on page one, “Biculturalism Failing Levesque Warns Rally.”[215] Newspapers in Quebec, both English and French, also played the debate prominently.

The following Tuesday Fisher told his readers about the back-story the night of the debate. Levesque had refused to let Montreal radio stations cover the debate live. Because of the dispute, the debate was delayed more than hour. Fisher explained the reason Levesque refused to let radio air it.

    Mr. Levesque is fed up with the way his phrases are picked up and distorted. As an ex-radio, ex-TV man, he is irreverent towards the trade. All this explains his ukase (sic) against radio and the 19 or so mikes which spiked the platform for our so-called debate. The nasty snarls this brought from the radio people led into his statement that he is never again going to speak in English on the relations between French and English Canada.[216]

Fisher had provided a thorough reader of the debate coverage with context about Levesque’s statement about using English. He also sought to paint a picture of Levesque that made him less an ogre and more human. Fisher realized Levesque was at home on television. “Ideally, his métier would be the small assembly of peers and friends or better still, direct candor with the television viewer.”[217] Only the participant, who had waited while the radio controversy was resolved, listened and had the chance to chat backstage with Levesque could observe and report these details to his readers. Fisher didn’t go over the ground covered in the news coverage that weekend. Instead he used his column, now called “Inside Politics”, to give Canadians a glimpse of the man who Quebeckers would elect Premier 12 years later.

The Fisher – Levesque debate aired nationally on CBC TV. As a politician Fisher always understood the power of television. During his time as an MP free-time political broadcasts were a regular feature on CBC and, over the years, Fisher appeared for both the CCF and NDP. The Star television critic Dennis Braithwaite reviewed one appearance in 1960.

    The CCF performed a small but worthwhile public service last night by devoting its free time political talk period to a primer description of how Parliament works. M.P.’s Douglas Fisher of Port Arthur and Frank Howard of Skeena got in a few licks for their party but were much more concerned about explaining the ins and outs of parliamentary affairs, a subject on which only politicians and a handful of press gallery reporters are really informed. Might be an idea for the CBC to pick up.[218]

In the fall of 1961, after the NDP elected Tommy Douglas as its leader, Fisher offered to line up experts to work with Douglas to improve his TV presentation skills. Fisher explained his plan to the federal secretary of the NDP, Carl Hamilton; “Each one has some ideas now on the weaknesses and strengths of Mr. Douglas on television.”[219] Douglas wrote Hamilton a week later that he wanted to get help “with television techniques,” adding “I am a rank amateur in this field and will be only too happy to take advice from anyone who is willing to give it.”[220]

The NDP booked Fisher to front the party’s telecast on “The Nation’s Business” on March 11, 1964. In the weeks leading up to the broadcast the leadership discussed the importance of the program. Douglas wrote Terry Grier, the NDP’s federal secretary; “We don’t have too many chances for national telecasts and I think we should make the maximum use of this one.”[221] A week before the program Grier sent out a release promoting Fisher’s topic “Why the New Democratic Party supports the Canada Pension Plan.”

It is a coincidence that Fisher appeared on the TV program “Inquiry” the same month that he handled the NDP turn on “The Nation’s Business” and began his own weekly television program. However Fisher worked behind the scenes to increase his television appearances. We know that when Bassett hired Fisher to write for the Telegram part of the deal included a weekly television show. Two years earlier Bassett used Fisher to interview him on his brand new station, CFTO. The Telegram ran an advertisement promoting the program. “Douglas Fisher, M.P., the outspoken Member of Parliament interviews John Bassett “[222]

While an MP Fisher also worked on television shows for CBC and he recalls the controversy that caused.

    Then I did something else that was supposed to be illegal. Stanley Knowles said it was illegal and that was taking money for work done for CBC being a politician. You weren’t supposed to do it. And I said the hell with that. I went together with Jean Luc Pepin, who at that time was not an MP. We did a big two-hour program about the organization of parliament or some damn thing. Anyway we spent a lot of time at it. Then they sent the check and a little note went with it. There is a legal empty hole here. You must understand that some or most politicians don’t cash checks. I went ahead and did it. I was not going to do all that work and not get remuneration.[223]

Fisher’s program was first listed in the Star and the Telegram television listings on March 21, 1964. The program aired on Sunday March 22, 1964. The Telegram TV listing read, “Doug Fisher and Michael Starr” at 4:30 in the afternoon.[224] The Star called the program “Doug Fisher and…” The guest, Michael Starr, was a Conservative MP from Oshawa. The next week the minister of defense, Paul Hellyer, was Fisher’s guest. Over the coming months the program aired at various times but usually on Sunday afternoon. On October 4 the show was moved to Sunday night after the local news at 11:40 and it stayed there during the rest of Fisher’s time as a member of parliament. It is difficult to assess and gauge the impact of Fisher’s television work in this period because the programs no longer exist and there are very few references to it in the Toronto newspapers.

However Fisher’s journalism did attract the attention of his colleagues in the House of Commons and in the Ottawa press gallery. In his last year in parliament there are a number of references to Fisher’s journalism some quite biting in tone. For example David Hahn (Liberal, Broadview) was blunt in this attack in the House of Commons on October 9, 1964.

    Hahn: In addition to the hon. member’s other activities, how much time does he spend collecting and writing this gossip, innuendo and behind the curtains tittle-tattle which is printed in the newspaper? Does this activity of collecting, assembling and writing this material really serve the country and his constituents? Is he acting in the best interests of his constituents and his party when he has to cross a picket line to publish his column?

    Fisher: That is not true.

    Hahn: Is it possible that even in this house, sitting behind his desk, he is thinking about writing this column when he should be doing what the rest of us do in similar circumstances – that is, read the daily newspapers? Does he stay in parliament to hold his job as a columnist, or does he hold the job as a columnist to maintain his seat in parliament?[225]

A few minutes later Real Caouette, the leader of the Social Credit Party, who frequently criticized Fisher for his position on Quebec, rose to defend Fisher.

    The hon. member for Port Arthur is certainly entitled to write in the newspapers and emcee a television program. He even invited me to appear on his program once, and although we may not share the same political views I must admit my fellow member’s television program is objective. He endeavors to inform the public by making use of every political faction in the country and allowing them to express their opinion very freely.[226]

In 1965 Diefenbaker addressed the advantage Fisher held as a politician – journalist.

    The hon. Member for Port Arthur said that the matter should not be discussed. I have quite an admiration for the duality of his capacity from day to day. He sits on Mount Olympus and the press determines the relative position, capacity and ability of every Member of this House.

    Mr. Churchill: Except himself.

    Mr. Diefenbaker: Mr. Speaker, I say to the hon. gentleman that it is given to few of us to be so high that we can look down on others and point out their weaknesses and then determine their qualifications by numbers. So far as the Members of the House are concerned, we receive daily treatment in this regard. No other Member of the press can do it because there is none so close to us. The others look down to us from above; he is on our level. Therefore he is able to speak with that detachment which comes from knowledge and wisdom.[227]

After Diefenbaker took his seat, Prime Minister Pearson added a few of his own words. “Mr. Speaker, I should say at once that I do not intend to follow the right hon. gentleman to the summit of Mount Olympus and discuss those who dwell in majesty thereon.” [228]Fisher didn’t let Diefenbaker’s comments go.

    I cannot help but thank the leader of the opposition for his notice of my activities. I must suggest to him that he probably has been much too assiduous in following what I write he assumes it appears every day. I might mention to him that that great parliamentarian, the greatest of the great to whom he referred and who is immortal to everyone, can be remembered for the fact that throughout his career he acted as both a lecturer and a journalist, almost as a steady vocation particularly in his yearly years, and I know he will appreciate it if I take such a gentleman as Mr. Churchill as my model.[229]

Diefenbaker clearly appreciated the response as Hansard recorded him saying: “Hear, hear.”

Three months later Fisher announced his retirement from politics and his role as a politician-journalist led the Globe’s editorialist to question his stated reasons for going.

    We have (or more accurately we do not have) Mr. Douglas Fisher, the versatile deputy leader of the New Democratic party, newspaper columnist and member for Port Arthur; who announced Wednesday that he would not be a candidate in the November 8 election. He explained: “My wife and I have a family of boys but I’ve become a stranger to them. I’ve had to ask myself which come first, your family or politics? And the answer had to be family.”
    Yet many people who regret Mr. Fisher’s departure will wonder why his moonlighting activities were not the first to go. Did it have anything to do with his observation in a recent panel discussion that the institution of Parliament had become decadent?[230]

The same day Peter Newman, then the Star’s columnist in Ottawa, devoted his column to Fisher’s parliamentary career saying his journalism upset his NDP colleagues.

    Resentment was fanned further by Fisher’s noisy successes as a newspaper columnist and TV host. Although he doesn’t say so, this animosity within his own party wore him down. Just before he quit politics, he toyed briefly with the idea of joining the Conservatives. But in the end he realized that such a move would be misunderstood, and that by declining to run again he was only formalizing an inevitable separation.[231]

So why did Fisher leave politics? An interview with Peter Stursberg in 1976 raised a number of the issues that went into Fisher’s decision.

    I was burned out to a degree. I’d worked terribly hard. I had substantial family difficulties…You see, the more attention you get…and the column, and being a vigorous spokesman in the House brought me an enormous amount of mail…And the real question really became, well, being fascinated with politics there was a possibility of a career in the media.[232]

Fisher told me he considered staying in politics to seek the leadership of the NDP but his lack of French was only one of the problems.

    I didn’t have the ultimate ambition and one of the reasons was the French thing. The party had been dominated for years by David Lewis. He had fostered or given way to ‘a call David’ or ‘worship David.’[233]

However his explanation to Tom Earle referred back to pressures on him because of his various commitments.

    The temptation to escape from this treadmill and get into something where I would have, in some ways, as much influence on the political process as I was having in the House became quite attractive.”[234]

Fisher did his journalism while the deputy house leader of the NDP. Brian Mulroney believes a Conservative or Liberal MP would have had more difficulty combining the two.

    It probably was because the NDP has traditionally been a very intelligent group of people but unthreatening politically. No one ever thought they were going to form a government. So you know that tended NDP members a fair amount of latitude.[235]

Tom Kent worked for the Liberal Party in Ottawa during Fisher’s years as a politician – journalist and he concurred with Mulroney on this point.

    I don’t think it could happen then or could happen now for an MP for the Liberal or Conservative party. The big parties. But the NDP at that time was a very tiny party and Doug Fisher was, I think from the beginning, not much of a politician. I don’t say that critically, don’t misunderstand me, but he went to Ottawa on the great reputation as a giant killer. He defeated C.D. Howe. But by temperament I don’t think he was much of a party man himself. Certainly he was in a party that didn’t have much relevance as a party. I don’t think he was very much of a party man. He was far more by temperament a commentator.[236]

Fisher, looking back on those years of politics and journalism, says there was never a formal complaint.

    The surprising thing when I look back on my time as an MP, and for the period following the time I was an MP, for another ten years, nobody raised anything about it except for Diefenbaker. They could have easily…because I was using facilities and space and material…Today nobody would get away with it.[237]

Would it have been possible for an MP from one of the two big parties to do both? “I think the Liberal caucus would be the tough one. Not the Tories…what amazes me, as I look back, is how I ever got away with it.”[238]

As 1965 drew to an end the politician-participant, now 46, decided to flip the roles and become a journalist-observer. He concluded that he could find ways to remain a participant. Fisher decided to trade in the risky occupation of an elected politician moonlighting as a journalist for a basket of jobs that brought him more financial stability, less travel and more time with his family. “I had income possible and I did exploit the labour relations, magazine writing, script writing and then television performing.”[239]

    After Douglas Fisher left politics to become a full-time journalist he remembers Liberal member of parliament, Gerard Pelletier, coming to see him. Pelletier was trying to do what Fisher had done, write a column while an MP.
    He said, “You are no longer in the House but you are still covering things very closely. How do you do it? Don’t you get repercussions?” He said, “every time I write anything for Le Devoir I get jumped on, I get jumped on by my colleagues.” My argument to him was you play fair as you can and as accurately as you can and see how it rides. And I took it that if no one ever took it too far to protest it was because I was respected.[240]

In his years as an MP Fisher had established his reputation. A small sampling of opinions is revealing. Editorial writers labeled him a “maverick,”[241] a reporter called him “l’enfant terrible”[242] of the House of Commons, a fellow politician summed up his contribution saying, “Canada’s House of Commons contains only one independent, non-conforming thinker and speaker – Douglas Fisher,”[243]

The columnist, Peter Newman, observed Fisher was “the most widely read member of parliament” and he wrote his “manner in Ottawa was that of a wry, disengaged observer.”[244] Through those years Fisher had a knack for making sure he was noticed and in 1965 he turned to full time journalism determined to be fair and provocative. “I wasn’t inside the whale anymore (an MP) but I could guess a great deal from the guys I knew.” While Newman foresaw the observer role that Fisher would turn to, Fisher was not through as a participant.

    What are the lines I am going to pursue that I want? I want to change the face of the world. Well there’s the sports thing, the Indian thing and there’s the forestry thing. I became a lobbyist; I didn’t have anyone paying me.[245]

So he remained a participant-observer with the emphasis now on observation and a maverick not as a member of parliament but as a member of the Ottawa press gallery.

192.Canada, House of Commons, Debates, Index, 26th Parliament, 2nd Session, pg. 186. Ottawa.
193.Canada, House of Commons, Proceedings and Debates (Hansard) 26th Parliament, 2nd Session, Vol. 3, pg. 3171, May 12, 1964, Ottawa.
194.Canada, House of Commons, Proceedings and Debates (Hansard), 26th Parliament, 1st Session, Vol. 2, pg. 1169, June 14, 1963, Ottawa.
195.Fisher, interview with Peter Stursberg, page 35.
196.ibid.
197.Fisher, Toronto Telegram, June 15, 1963, pg. 7.
198.ibid.
199.Fisher, Toronto Telegram, June 19, 1963, pg. 7.
200.Fisher, Toronto Telegram, June 23, 1963, pg. 7.
201.Note: The Financial Post did publish a piece about the advisors on May 13, 1963.
202.ibid.
203.ibid.
204.French, William, Globe and Mail, March 13, 1964, pg. 7.
205.ibid.
206.Rene Levesque – Douglas Fisher Debate, Transcript of CBC “Inquiry,” March 9, 1964, pg. 2, Library of Parliament, Ottawa.
207.ibid. pg. 4.
208.ibid. pg. 6.
209.ibid.
210.ibid. pg. 9.
211.ibid.
212.ibid. pg. 12.
213.Toronto Telegram, March 7, 1964, pg. 1.
214.Toronto Star, March 7, 1964, pg. 1.
215.Globe and Mail, March 7, 1964, pg. 1.
216.Toronto Telegram, March 10, 1964, pg. 7.
217.ibid.
218.Toronto Star, January 8, 1960, pg. 23.
219.CCF/NDP Papers, Fisher letter to Carl Hamilton, October 29, 1961, MG-28 Series IV 1, Volume 35, File “Nation’s Business – CBC – 1961-1962 Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
220.CCF/NDP Papers, T.C. Douglas letter to Carl Hamilton, November 6, 1961, MG-28 Series IV 1.
221.CCF/NDP Papers, Douglas letter to Terry Grier, February 24, 1964, MG-28, Series VI 1, Volume 435, File “Nation’s Business – CBC – 1964 –1965 #2, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
222.Toronto Telegram, May 13, 1962.
223.Fisher, interview, November 9, 2008.
224.Toronto Telegram, TV listing, March 21, 1964.
225.Canada, House of Commons, Proceedings and Debates (Hansard), 26th Parliament, 2nd Session, Vol. 8, pg. 8960, October 9, 1964, Ottawa.
226.ibid. pg. 8963. Note: The Toronto Star carried an account of at least one television program with Caouette and Fisher. “The most amusing appearance of Mr. Caouette on English TV was on the ‘Pierre Berton Hour’ before the dissolution of parliament. Berton enlisted the services of broadcaster-newsman Charles Lynch and M.P. Douglas Fisher, of the New Democratic Party. Together, they were going to show viewers the ‘real Caouette.” Toronto Star, March 30, 1963, pg. 23.
227.Canada, House of Commons, Proceedings and Debates (Hansard), 26th Parliament, 3rd Session, Vol. 2, pg. 2108, June 8, 1965, Ottawa.
228.ibid. pg. 2109.
229.ibid. pg. 2122.
230.Globe and Mail, Editorial, September 11, 1965, pg. 7.
231.Newman, Peter, Toronto Star, September 11, 1965, pg. 7.
232.Fisher, interview to Stursberg, July 2, 1976, pgs. 12-15.
233.Fisher, interview March 22, 2009.
234.Fisher, interview to Tom Earle, pg. 101.
235.Mulroney, interview, March 27, 2009.
236.Kent, interview, April 1, 2009.
237.Fisher, interview, November 16, 2008
238.Fisher, interview, November 9, 2008.
239.Ibid.
240.Fisher, interview December 6, 2008. Note: In 1965 Pelletier had a column, “Inside Quebec,” in the Toronto Telegram.
241.Toronto Star, January 30, 1960, pg. 6.
242.Globe and Mail, January 29, 1960, pg. 1.
243.Service, James, North York Councilor, Toronto Star, November 30, pg. 27.
244.Newman, Peter, Toronto Star, September 11, 1965, pg. 7.
245.Fisher, interview November 9, 2008.

©George Hoff


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